Art Through Time: A Global View
Writing Art: Quotations from Chairman Mao
Xu Bing grew up in China, but moved to New York shortly after the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square.
As a child during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Xu Bing was taught a new, simplified approach to writing Chinese characters. Later, he was chosen by his school to create propaganda posters and banners for the government. In the first instance, he learned that changes to writing could lead to changes in thinking. In the second, he was exposed to the darker side of writing’s ability to influence opinion. His father, an intellectual, had been denounced publicly by the same kinds of posters Xu Bing was recruited to produce. The artist’s engagement with writing, a major theme throughout his career, might be seen as having its roots in these early experiences.
Xu Bing’s artwork as an adult centers on the importance of context in the ability of writing to communicate with readers. Many of his playful artworks use designs that at first glance appear to be authentic Chinese characters, but are, in fact, nonsensical, unreadable, or hybrids of multiple writing systems. In light of his international background, much of Xu Bing’s work investigates the gaps between different cultures and the role that words might play in creating or filling those gaps.
This image is part of Xu Bing’s long-term experimental project Square Word Calligraphy, begun in 1994. He has adapted the brushstrokes of traditional Chinese calligraphy to write words in English (and other languages) in a compact square form. As non-Chinese readers spend time looking at these seemingly Chinese characters, they slowly realize, with surprise, that they can understand the words. In this way, Xu Bing cleverly makes the esoteric art of Chinese calligraphy seem less foreign and more accessible to Westerners. Xu’s Square Word Calligraphy project is extraordinarily dynamic and multi-layered. In addition to producing the calligraphy himself, Xu has developed primers, organized workshops and classes, produced instructional videos, and even created computer software and fonts to generate these characters digitally.
Melissa Chiu, Museum Director and Vice President for Global Art Programs, Asia Society
“Xu Bing’s parents were both professors at Beida University, in Beijing. And he said that he spent most of his childhood in the library looking at books. So I think that this childhood has really impacted on his art practice more than anything else.
In 1975, when Xu Bing was twenty years old, he, like twelve million other youth, were sent to the countryside to live with farmers or peasants to be reeducated. And so, during this time, he created many newsletters for the villagers and was actively involved in kind of ideas of political consciousness. He also practiced his calligraphy.
China has a long tradition of writing and calligraphy, and calligraphy, in fact, is seen as an art form. In fact, it’s seen as one of the highest art forms, more so than the pictorial tradition in some respects.
Xu Bing, when he moved to the United States, developed this new English calligraphy. He has created a script which looks like a Chinese character—a Chinese word—but it can be read by English speakers. So he has created a work that is very much for an American audience to understand how Chinese words are put together and constructed. So that, I think, is a very unique contribution to how words might play a role in visual culture. He, like many other artists, adapted to his new living conditions being a Chinese man now living in the United States, but also created something that is also about trying to look at the universality of language. And so the new work that he’s creating right now is looking at icons, international icons, and trying to develop a language that, in fact, anybody can read, around the world, no matter what language you speak.”
Erickson, Britta, and Xu Bing. The Art of Xu Bing: Words Without Meaning, Meaning Without Words. Washington, DC: Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Galleries, 2001.
Silbergeld, Jerome, and Dora C.Y. Ching. Persistence/Transformation: Text as Image in the Art of Xu Bing. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
Smith, Karen, and Marianne Brouwer. Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China. Hong Kong: Timezone 8 Limited, 2008.
Xu Bing Web site. http://www.xubing.com
Ying, Wang, and Yan Sun, eds. Reinventing Tradition in a New World: The Arts of Gu Wenda, Wang Mensheng, Xu Bing, and Zhang Hongtu. Gettysburg, PA: Gettysburg College, 2005.